Tag Archives: black and white

66. À bout de Souffle – Jean-Luc Godard (1960)

Repeat Viewing.

“Informers Inform, Burglars Burgle, Murderers Murder, Lovers Love.”

À bout de Souffle, aka Breathless, was Godard’s first feature film and you could make a good argument for it being his best. In fact, not only his best movie, but one of the best movies of all time, perhaps the best ever, even? I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that my favourite Godard is Alphaville, but in terms of influence and importance you can’t top Breathless. The movie’s direction has been written about in length in thousands of journals and books, and deservedly so, it’s pure magic. It inspires wannabe directors more than any movie I can think of. I could write this entire entry on the jump cuts alone, it took the art of moviemaking into a completely new and exciting area.

Never was Godard’s quote that all you needed for a movie was “a girl and a gun”, more apt than here. The story, for a movie so highly acclaimed, isn’t especially strong. Our cooler-than-cool anti-hero Michel, Jean-Paul Belmondo, is on the run for murder, but you wouldn’t know it. He spends his time walking the sun-soaked streets of Paris, talking to girls, stealing cars, and, never, never, never, without a cigarette casually hanging from the corner of his lips. Michel gradually starts to spend more time with his new lover, Patricia, Jean Seburg, an American journalist. They talk of love, sex, art, and philosophy. And these discussions take up the majority of the middle section of the film before the final section adds some excitement, tying up the opening threads of the film. So, we’re not exactly talking a Citizen Kane-esque epic story spanning across generations here! Of course, that’s not the point, this movie proves that there’s more than one way to entertain an audience.

One of the most striking elements of the film is the sense of spontaneity to everything. It doesn’t feel tied down, anything seems possible. The script has lots of improvised elements and you can see this in the acting. It’s very natural, almost carefree. It wasn’t just the dialogue that was improvised, even some of the locations were unplanned. Godard didn’t seek any permission to shoot scenes, hence we see some iconic and beautiful shots of the actors walking around Paris. Perhaps it’s this style of filmmaking that gives Breathless a timeless feel. If I didn’t know better I’d think this film was made yesterday. It’s truly ageless. The characters have such style and coolness, even liberalness, that you can’t quite believe this film is over fifty years old. It’s no surprise that Michel admires, perhaps even wants to be, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart himself has a timeless quality that fills the screen. They both have that trademark coolness when it comes to lighting a cigarettes. Bogart and Godard movies did more to make smoking look cool than a hundred years of cigarette advertising could ever do. In fact, if you’ve just quit smoking then avoid this film, I guarantee you you’ll be on a packet a day by the half way point.

One of the interesting things Godard explores in this film is youth. The younger characters have a moral ambiguity, they don’t care Michel has killed a policeman, they’re happy to help him escape the cops in any way they can. Michel, himself, shows no remorse whatsoever for actions. Nearly all the characters that try to stop, hinder, or refuse help to Michel are of an older generation. It doesn’t feel like Godard is saying one generation is better or more advanced than another, but he’s illustrating a gap between generations, giving different points of view. It’s a gap that references films like A Rebel Without a Cause, the kind of Americana that Godard loved, and is littered throughout this film. Ironically American directors would then go on to make their own versions of Godard inspired Americana movies, Tarantino would even lift entire scenes from Godard movies in homage, but I’ll get to that another time, in a different post.

There’s so many more elements to Breathless that I could mention that I haven’t yet, from the wonderful jazz score to the documentary style of filming, but this post would be huge and I have movies to watch!

This really is one of the great movies, and if you love movies you should see this.

Marks out of ten – Ten

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59. The Lost Weekend – Billy Wilder (1945)

First Viewing.

If Billy Wilder were a band he’d be The Beatles, just take a look at some of the hits in his back catalogue; Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, The Apartment, and, of course, Some like it Hot. Three of those films, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Witness for the Prosecution all could make a great case for being in my own personal favourite top ten. Wilder really was a true master of his craft. The Lost Weekend is one of his earlier films, and, I find, his earlier work to be more daring than the later stuff which was more mainstream and safe, by comparison. (The reverse of what The Beatles did!)

The plot of The Lost Weekend is fairly simple and doesn’t have any major twists or turns; we follow the life of Don Birnam, played by Ray Milland, and he, plain and simple, is a drunk. A drunk, but with aspirations to be a writer. We follow his life and the depths to which it sinks; stealing, begging and lying just to get himself a drink. We see alcohol corrupt his life to such an extent that nothing matters any more except where and when he can get his next fix. He does have one saving grace, his girlfriend, Helen, devoted to him beyond all reason. She believes in him, and his ability to conquer the booze, and to write that great American novel. Don also has the help of his brother, Wick, who has cleared up plenty of Don’s mess over the past few years, literally and metaphorically. Wick’s on the verge of giving up on Don though, Don’s about to hit rock bottom. And, this lost weekend, is Don losing it completely.

There’s a lot to like about this film; it’s not overtly sentimental, it doesn’t sugarcoat alcoholism, and, most importantly for me, it does it’s best to avoid a clichéd and obvious ending. Wilder and Milland do a fantastically adept job of making us dislike and pity Don Birnam, but we never hate him. His character has no obvious redeeming characteristics – he treats his girlfriend, brother and acquaintances like shit- but we root for him, even though we really shouldn’t. That’s the great thing about this film, we want him to get better, and go on to be a success. It wouldn’t work if we gave up on the guy. The downside to the film is that it’s not exactly uplifting! The idea of watching a man drink himself to the verge of death for 90 minutes isn’t ever going to be fun. There are times when watching Don’s drunken antics can become predictable and boring, but these moments are rare enough that it doesn’t detract from the bigger picture that Wilder is painting. At times Wilder is really pushing the boundaries of 1940s filmmaking. The Lost Weekend has an almost dangerous, illicit feel to it. You never feel comfortable, anything could happen when Don’s on screen.

I wouldn’t call The Lost Weekend a hidden treasure, it’s an Oscar winner for starters, it is, however, one of the slightly lesser known Wilder movies, and yet equally as worthy as any of the others for a viewing. It makes for a great late night watch especially, go check your TV guides for it’s next appearance.

Marks out of ten – Eight

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53. Stranger Than Paradise – Jim Jarmusch (1984)

Repeat Viewing.

“You know, it’s funny, you come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same”

It would be remiss of me not to mention straight away that Stranger than Paradise is my favourite movie of all time, so you’re not going to get a balanced and impartial review from me today. No way, Jose. It’s a movie that I love like a family member, and not a rarely seen great uncle or distant cousin, we’re talking a little brother or sister, in fact, just ask my nearest and dearest for further proof on my love for it! And, of course, I’m going to give it the full marks out of ten. (Sorry for giving away the entry’s ending) That being said I know it’s not the greatest movie ever committed to celluloid, that’s something like a Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, Andrei Rublev, Tokyo Story, or Seven Samurai. Each one a great and influential film. Stranger than Paradise certainly influenced American independent cinema – I’ve got my own 16k word dissertation that attests to that- but I would struggle to call Stranger a great movie, at least in comparison to some of the previously mentioned films. I think my one true gripe with the film is the somewhat weak and out of place ending. It doesn’t really compliment the style of the film. My own take would be that the film doesn’t need an ending. It has no beginning or middle in the tradition of the Aristole three-act structure, so an ending doesn’t work in that context. Yet Stranger does bow to an ending with drama – and I use the term “drama” loosely – and it just doesn’t work for me.

That’s enough of the criticism. I can’t do it any more! What I love about Stranger is it’s uniqueness, I can’t think of another movie like it. I can’t think of a movie that deals with immigration, the failure, or even non-existence, of the American dream, alienation, friendship and so on whilst balancing it with a movie that has so little obvious drama and content. It’s almost like watching a home movie so little is happening in a literal sense, but it’s still so damn quotable. Anyone who doesn’t come away saying “bug off” isn’t paying hard enough attention. The characters are also very real. We don’t see them being people to admire, and we don’t see them redeeming themselves. They exist in their own bubble, and they don’t change. They are what they are. They’re the same in the beginning as they are at the end. People don’t change, really.

The film is also all kinds of cool. Anyone who has ever seen an interview with Jim Jarmusch knows he’s the coolest person on the planet. We’re talking Mick Jagger Gimme Shelter era coolness. And, naturally, the film’s coolness is transmitted everywhere. From the actors to the music to the cinematography. Stranger is beautifully photographed by Tom DiCillio – a hugely talented person – and edited into tiny fade-to-black vignettes, lasting from a few seconds and up to three or four minutes in some cases. The style was so inspiring to me that I shot my own grad film on 16mm black and white film stock and used about seven cuts in the whole flick. It just works so wonderfully when you’re working on a small budget. Finally I need to say a few words about John Lurie. For someone who isn’t even an actor primarily he gives a stunningly adept and understated performance. You should hate Lurie’s character, but you can’t help but like him.

I could go on and on about my love for this film, I didn’t even mention the locations’ importance, but I’m gonna quit while I’m behind ahead and start fantasizing about Jarmusch’s new film in production, Only Lovers Left Behind instead.

Marks out of ten – Ten

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46. Brief Encounter – David Lean (1945)

Repeat viewing.

England may not have as fine a tradition of cinematic excellence as some other European countries, I’m thinking France mainly here, but we do have a fair amount of great movies that capture our country exquisitely, and none more so than Brief Encounter. If England were ever needed to be represented by a movie to be shown to visitors from a galaxy far, far away then you couldn’t pick anything more suitable than this. It’s what I loved about this country. It’s charming, witty, and beautifully sad. It captures a country recovering from war and entering into a period of great change and the two main characters, Laura and Alec, capture this moment perfectly. Both are married, both, it would seem, love their partner, and both have fallen in love with each other. They want each other, but know the consequences of running off together are terrible in the eyes of society. It’s the eternal question, should one do what one wants or should one do what is considered right? The films follows the characters as they make their choices. Of course being English and living in the 1940s they, Alec and Laura, cannot possibly confess their love of another person to any of their friends or acquaintances, they have appearances to uphold, and that famous stiff upper lip to adhere to, so nearly everything we hear on the subject of love is from the inner monologue of Laura. It works rather well here, but it isn’t exactly the best way to tell a film and this technique would crash and burn in other films, especially ones much less charming than this.

This film, as you may or may not know, was written by one of the legends of English playwright history, Noel Coward, the Shakespeare of his day, except he’d be more likely to be found with a Martini  in his hand rather than a goblet of red wine. Coward creates a beautiful script with such perfect dialogue that it left myself pining for the days when the people of this country spoke with eloquence and wit, not the bastard love-child of Dick Van Dyke and Ali G we’re left with instead. I also cannot finish this review without mentioning the director, David Lean, another shining star in English history. The direction is so perfect here that one barely even notices the lack of set-pieces and how this film really is a play at it’s heart.

Marks out of ten – Eight

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31. Speedy – Ted Wilde (1928)

First Viewing.

This was the last silent movie the wonderful Harold Lloyd made, and it’s a piece of pure nostalgic candy-floss beauty. If, like me, you’ve got a special place for the city of New York then you’ll love this movie from a historical point of view and, even if you don’t, it’ll make you smirk, smile and chuckle for 80 minutes. Lloyd bounds through the boroughs with such whimsy and joy that you can’t help but fall in love with this flick. The section shot at Coney Island being the absolute highlight of the adventure, you can almost smell the popcorn and hotdogs. There’s also a great cameo from ‘The Babe’, so any baseball lovers will find this a treat too.

You can’t go wrong with watching this film, especially if you were let down with ‘The Artist’.

Marks out of ten – eight.

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30. The Artist – Michel Hazanavicius (2011)

First Viewing

First things fucking last, to quote Nice Guy Eddie, must be to say that Hazanavicius should be hugely congratulated for actually getting a silent movie made in an era of 3D and I’m-edited-so-fast-I-can’t-tell-what-the-hell-just-happened type films – Michael Bay, I mean you! So well done, Michel. Now, for my main gripe(s) with the film, it’s just a very average film. I’m certain had it been released in the 1920s it would have been lost amongst the superior Chaplin/Keaton/Lloyd models. One doesn’t even have the luxury of watching the movie as a historical document like one can with other silent films. There’s nothing actually bad about The Artist, but it just doesn’t do enough to stand out from the crowd, except, of course, there is no crowd now so it’s being treated as a masterpiece. (Michel you better clear your mantlepiece for all the awards coming your way) Also, if you’re going to stick to genre conventions (like making your movie silently) don’t start putting sounds in half way through the film. It ruins the whole damn illusion! I don’t get why you would want to do that…

It’s enjoyable, but it’s no The Cameraman or The Gold Rush

Marks out of ten – Six

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